Western Ethical Norms and Halacha by R. Yosef Kanefsky

(This essay appeared in the Journal Jurnal of Greater Los Angeles on Friday)

The Orthodox community is rapidly approaching a moment of truth. The many issues that the Orthodoxy community is debating internally are rapidly collapsing into one overarching issue, one macro-question, with which it must grapple head-on. And this is, whether or not the ethical norms of western society should figure into the process of determining Halacha (Jewish Law).

 Consider the issues that have most roiled Orthodoxy just over the past year or so. There is the controversy over the statement of principles concerning the place of homosexuals within the Orthodox community, a document that while upholding the Biblical prohibition on homosexual behavior, mandates that people who are homosexual be afforded full dignity and respect, and that they be included in their Orthodox communities. Signed by 150 Orthodox rabbis and educators, it was flatly rejected by at least as many. There is also the ongoing debate over whether women may serve as synagogue presidents, as well as the sure-to-return debate over women being ordained as rabbis. More recently, we have seen renewed controversy over  whether or not Halacha permits us to donate our organs following our brain-stem death, even as it is clear that we are permitted to receive organs from non-Jews who are brain-stem dead. And most recently, we have witnessed the controversy in Israel as to whether Halacha prohibits the sale or lease of apartments to non-Jews in the land of Israel. Each of these issues is complex in its own way, and none can be facilely decided in the absence of rigorous Halachik analysis. But over and over again, the wedge issue turns out to be whether or not consideration of western ethical norms is relevant to the analysis.

 This emerged clearly last week, as the Rabbinical Council of America registered its objection to the ban on renting to non-Jews in Israel, saying that the Halachik analysis of this issue demands “special sensitivity to societal realities, widely-held ethical principles, and historical injustices”.  Which is to say, that when we examine our universe of viable Halachik alternatives, our choice of alternative can and should be influenced by wider ethical considerations. Yet this is, of course, precisely the point of contention.

 The story is the same with regard to the organ donation issue. Here too, viable and scholarly halachik positions have existed on both side of this issue for many decades. Last month though, a Rabbinical Council of America report (ironically), which preferred the position that effectively prohibits  Jews from donating organs, elicited the following response from Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, a prominent scholar and bio-ethicist (and a longtime proponent of the brain-stem definition of death, which results in the permissibility of organ donation) “Their final conclusion is that a Jew who is in need of a heart transplant can receive a heart from a brain-dead patient but he can’t donate his heart if he is brain dead. Such a ruling defames Judaism and exposes every Jew to the hatred of non-Jews. It is saying that a Jew can take a vital organ from a non-Jew even though Jews consider him still alive — that his life doesn’t count. How could you justify such a ruling?”

 The wedge issue is the same when it comes to the place of homosexuals in the Orthodox community. The opening words of the above-referenced Statement of Principles are: “All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.” While it is of course true that the idea that all people are created in the image is Biblical, its specific application to homosexuals is a distinctly modern historical development. It is our way of clothing in our religious language the modern, western ethical assertion that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. The relevance of such ideas to our halachik calculus is again what stands at the center of the controversy. Similarly, when rabbinic scholars in pre-State Palestine debated whether or not women ought to have the right to vote in Yishuv elections, the old/new “image of God” idea was one of the main pivots of the discussion.  And it continues to play out in today’s controversies over the position of women in the Orthodox community.

 Are the ethical norms of modern western society essential to halachik discussion, or are they irrelevant? Are they to be integrated, or to be shunned? This is, in the final analysis, the central issue that the Orthodox community is grappling with. And the answer will determine Orthodoxy’s long term viability as positive force in the wider Jewish community, and the wider world.

4 Responses to Western Ethical Norms and Halacha by R. Yosef Kanefsky

  1. David Sher says:

    I accept your premise. What is your answer?

  2. Moshe says:

    Which norms would we follow? For example, in certain places, euthanasia is a norm. Engaging in premarital sex is a common western norm. Extramarital relations are barely condemned, if at all. Concentration of wealth is a norm these days in the USA, at least de facto. If atheism becomes a “norm”, should we adopt that too? Fascism was once a “norm” in many places.

    What is your standard for which norms to adopt? Is there a limit? Do we really need western “norms” to tell us, e.g., that “All human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect”. And where in Judaism is it written that same does not apply to homosexuals? Was it it not a woman (Beruriah) who prevailed over her rabbi husband in reminding us that we must hate, if anything, the sin, not the sinner?
    One could certainly make the argument that we should examine if certain facets of Judaism, as now practiced, are merely relics of a different societal reality, as opposed to being intrinsic. But it seems to me that the logical conclusion of your line of argument is that Judaism is morally hefker, and can only survive if it jettisons any attributes that contradict current norms. I respectfully beg to differ.

  3. […] Western Ethical Norms and Halacha by R. Yosef Kanefsky […]

  4. Josh says:

    Moshe, the key to balancing ethically driven absorbtion of norms with hesitation before norms in psak halacha is essential to engaging in any meaningful discussion involving the argument “that Judaism is morally hefker.” We have a responsibility to avoid an understanding of our halacha as being a deep bin of “meaningful mimetic forms.” We must now pursue an understanding of the values that drove the earliest legal formulations of our tradition. If we can accomplish that, and add to it an understanding of how later generations of poskim absorbed and interpreted those values in their psak, we can surely proceed to achieve an understanding of how to balance the norms of our current reality with tradition and with a focus on maintaining appropriate halachic values.

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